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Stop Using My Identity As A Joke

Stop Using My Identity As A Joke

To the guy who said: “I thought I had found the perfect Asian guy … but then I learned he was adopted.”

*Takes a deep breath* 

Dear sir,

There are many things I am deep-sighing at right now. Your comment was surprising, disappointing, and unfunny. I have written a range about the transracial adoptee experience, and am thrilled that brave new works of art like Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere and Nicole Chung’s All You Can Ever Know are bringing adoption—specifically from the adoptee’s perspective—into a more commercial conversation.

That being said, “jokes” are still being made at the expense of transracial adoptees, and hearing you, a POC, passive-aggressively Other another POC, makes me both frustrated and sad.

Let’s start with the subject of the night in question. The comment came at a birthday party, a friend-of-a-friend’s celebration in a tiny bar in Brooklyn. There was a small alcove in the back of the bar, where people gathered with drinks and food, mingling. The space was fabulous, perfect for a party.

A little bell chimed up front, and someone stepped to the microphone.

Thank you all so much for being here tonight, the host announced. To begin, who wants to hear a story about my love life?

He’d had a few drinks; his smile was beautiful, tipsy. The crowd cheered in encouragement.

The host went on to complain about how difficult it was to date in New York. Everyone nodded their heads in agreement—no arguments there.

It’s so hard to find a good Asian man, the host bemoaned. He himself was Chinese. I match with people and we go on dates and something’s always wrong. They work in finance, or something.

More laughter bounced around the room.

Then, on my last date, I thought I had found him: the perfect guy. Cute, Korean, great cook, great ass. I was so excited!

The host smiled, holding a dramatic pause.

And then, he said in a hushed voice, I found out he was adopted. Damn it, universe. So now I’m back at the beginning.

When I heard this in person, at first it didn’t register. It wasn’t until later that I thought, shit, was that really what he said? I said nothing that night, since I didn’t even know this man. It was a celebration, after all; I didn’t want to be that person to start something.

What I wish I’d said: How do you think that man would feel, hearing his existence become the butt of a joke, and worse, being nowhere in sight to defend himself? Though perhaps it was good he wasn’t there—it was just me, another Asian adoptee, who took the offense and ran with it.

Adoptees have been the butt of many an insensitive joke or comment, but when something like this comes from a community you respect and want to be a part of, it hurts more. Other people might make “jokes” and I’ll give them harsh side eye but let it slide because they’re ignorant or just don’t get it, and it’s not my job to educate the world on why XYZ (racism/misogyny/homophobia, take your pick) is bad.

But when it’s your own people, or from people you considered to be your own, and they make a joke at your expense, it’s different. It makes you wonder if you will ever be accepted anywhere.

I can only speak from my own experiences, of course. As a Chinese adoptee I have heard the run of the gamut, everything from “You’re not Asian,” “you’re a banana,” “but you’re so [fill in bullshit adjective] for an Asian,” “”you’re basically white,” to my personal favorite, “I forget you’re even Asian sometimes.”

It’s easy to brush things off when they only happen once in a while from unassuming strangers. But when these comments start to come from those close to you, from friends and even family, it gets infinitely harder to find the will to speak up and say something. 

In my experience, some Asian adoptees are even more curious and driven to learn about aspects of their birth culture, because of the fact that we’ve lacked this information our whole lives. We feel, as the sociologist Sunaina Marr Maira calls it, “a nostalgia for an imagined homeland to which [we’ve] never been.” Transracial adoptees have lived with dual or even multiple identities that few outside the process can truly relate to or understand. We are this and that, we are the lucky ones, we were saved, we were abandoned, nobody wanted us, somebody got us. Does anyone know who we are? Do we ourselves?

Of course, the pendulum swings both ways. I know of an adoptee who took the other extreme, who wanted nothing to do with her birth culture because it was too painful to look back at what could have been. It is moving forward that matters to her, and to focus unnecessarily on the past, on things she cannot change, is moot.

Regardless of how we move through the world, one thing is for certain: as abnormalities in the traditional definition of family, we have been hyper self-conscious of who we are and what we look like our whole life. We have been judged time and again by circumstances beyond our control, and we are sick of constantly having to explain and justify ourselves. 

So please. There is enough shit happening in the world right now. Please don’t contribute by making others feel bad for being different from you, or from coming from a different family situation than you. People of color understand what it means to live in a white America. It is not an us-versus-them thing, it is a compassion thing. It is recognizing that we are all made of multiplicities, and we have the right to share our identities, but should never feel the need to prove them. This train of thought is reductive at best, speaking to the same fabled “authenticity” that shuns Black folk who are not “Black enough” or Native folk that are not “Indian enough.” The Authenticity Olympics will never have a winner, because the game is rigged from the start. The judges are almost always outside of the group they wish to judge, and when they are inside that group, well, that is what I’m trying to shine a light on.

Authenticity means living your truth, and adoptees are included in this. We may choose to express this in outlandish ways or choose to remain private, and either choice should not fear ostracism in the process.  

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